CU Water Cooler

In Defense of Umwelt: Credit Union Horseradish

Matt DavisComment
To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.
— Yiddish proverb

When Malcolm Gladwell mentioned the Yiddish proverb “To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish” in his 2004 New Yorker article The Ketchup Conundrum, he was referencing a conversation with psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz. The subjective nature of perfection had become an obsession for Moskowitz. He dedicated his career to the idea and spoke to every crowd and ear he could find to explain its merits. It had become his world. His horseradish.

Moskowitz’ basic idea was that while consumers may have a finite set of preferences, the number is predictably greater than one. Creating products (or services) for the greatest common denominator, or assuming there is a “perfect” solution for everyone, is a flawed approach that makes no one happy. Simple segmentation can define distinct taste and need sets that require their own solutions. Perfection, he ultimately proved with Prego spaghetti sauce and other consumer goods, is in the eye of the beholder. Subsequently, so is happiness and satisfaction associated with consumption.

While it’s clear what this proverb actually means, I can’t stop thinking about the worm. Does she like horseradish? Would she prefer to be somewhere else? Is this her condiment of choice? Is she at peace in heaven or suffering in her own personal hell?

Great debates emerged in the 1930’s between the ideas of environmental determinism and Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelt. Environmental determinism holds that an organism’s very nature is dictated and transformed by its environment. Contrastingly, Uexküll believed that, while an objective environment may exist, an organism’s interpretation of this environment is highly subjective. Thus, an organism dictates and transforms its own, subjective, umwelt (literally: "surrounding world"). In short Uexküll argues that context means everything, and organisms naturally try to optimize its subjective meaning.

We cannot grasp the sense of a strange subject directly, but we can approach his body by taking a detour to investigate into his meaning carrier… When I look from the position of a subject, be it man or animal, I can say that these things in his environment, but not the others, are the meaning-carrier for him.
— Jakob von Uexküll, "Die Bedeutung der Umweltforschung für die Erkenntnis des Lebens."

We all have our own umwelts. We all have different meaning-carriers. So, let’s say you’re a worm…in horseradish. Do you define your environment, or are you defined by your environment?

A credit union professional’s horseradish since 2009 has been some combination of endless regulation, thin margins, consumer apathy, economic uncertainty, and technological disruption. Defining the meaning of this umwelt is interesting. But this is too universal and mostly trivial.

What is much more interesting, and meaningful, is understanding our members’ umwelt. The horseradish surrounding a young adult in Alexander, North Dakota, is no better or worse than what surrounds the retiring couple in Canton, Illinois. It’s simply different. As credit unions struggle for differentiation and relevancy, perhaps it is time to get into the umwelt business. Bank of America has created an amazing solution for the masses. They’ve created a solid spaghetti sauce/ketchup/horseradish that appeals to the massive market for which they compete. But they don’t know your market. They can’t possibly understand the horseradish surrounding your carefully defined field of membership like you can.

That is… unless you haven’t carefully defined it.


Matt Davis is the co-founder of 6th Story, LLC and CU Water Cooler. He's a leading thinker, writer, speaker, and creator in the credit union world. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two sons.